car. At the movie’s end, we see him with a group of other prisoners,
descending on an open elevator into a mine. Above him, the square of
daylight grows smaller and smaller.
I can’t grasp it, of course. Can’t imagine this rather small acreage—I
easily walk from one side to the other—teeming with more than 1,500
prisoners, as it did in its heyday, the largest forced labor camp in the
country. Can’t imagine being one of twenty prisoners in that tiny cell,
vying for turns at the one bucket. Can’t imagine what it would mean to
go down into the mine every day and to know that this would be my life
until I died, if I were lucky enough not to be executed. Unless, perhaps,
execution would feel finally like luck.
But running the camp required more than cell blocks. There is, for
example, the doctor’s office, with its white examining table and framed
photograph of Stalin. There’s a head administrator’s office with an antique manual typewriter, black telephone, and Gestapoesque black
leather jacket hanging on the coat rack. A smaller, presumably lesser
office holds a desk and sixty-year-old girlie posters. In what appears to
be irony but is probably just a precaution, both offices are caged in by
On the walls, the story of the place is told in both Czech and English.
After 1951, Vojna became particularly prominent in the gulag system.
Designated at that time a “reeducation center,” it was the destination of
the most “dangerous” of political enemies. Some apparently were considered threats because of their achievements: winners of the 1947 and
1949 ice hockey championships were here, along with scientists and artists. Some arrived after televised show trials where they were convicted
of treason. Hideously—maybe this hits me the hardest of anything—
many of those imprisoned and murdered here were heroes of the Nazi
resistance. Because they were courageous, I suppose. And the regime
was afraid of courage.
There are, too, on the walls, handwritten accounts created by those
who survived. And there are letters written by those who did not. Here,
for example, is a letter written by Milada Horakova, herself a hero of the
resistance. Captured, she withstood dozens of beatings and interrogations by the Nazis before being transported to the Terezin concentration
camp. After the war, she refused to support the Communists, was again
beaten and interrogated, and, when she wouldn’t recant, was charged
with treason. Film clips of her widely publicized trial show a dignified
gray-haired woman of fifty in wire-rimmed spectacles and a dark dress